Monday 12 November 2018

IDIC and the art of franchise maintenance

Many of us have spent a lot of time, money, and emotional energy watching, reading, digesting, reflecting and arguing about, and consuming science fiction media. Over the past 30 years, some of those stories have become increasingly consolidated into franchises and shared universes. But when we become invested in a franchise, are we continuing to see a return on our investment? 

Let’s talk about the sunk-cost error.
When you're down 50,000 credits at
the Royale, you just assume that your
luck is eventually going to turn.
(Image via

It’s a cognitive error in which people refuse to abandon something that isn’t providing a return on investment. You can see it in stock markets, in policy debates, in relationships, in gambling, in consumerism.The investor is loathe to leave the stock, idea, person, or material object because their emotional attachment to the money, time, and effort they’ve already invested outweighs any logic to leave.

The sunk-cost error is arguably happening with a few key science fiction franchises: fans are escalating their commitment to mediocre derivatives of once creative and innovative narratives. The obvious example is a certain class of Star Trek fans.

If you’ve spent 32 hours watching the complete original series of Star Trek, an additional 144 hours watching all of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, shelled out money for several movies, and bought the complete collection of Mego Star Trek Model Starships … well then it gets more and more difficult to acknowledge that the vast majority of late-period Star Trek isn’t very good. 

The more invested we are in a franchise, the more difficult it is to accept when our relationship with the corporation that owns that franchise is no longer healthy. We aren’t getting creative output commiserate with our investment of time and money, but the emotional draw of new offerings is too
The commodore is called 'Paris'! It's a
reference to Tom Paris from Voyager!
Only real fans like me would get that
reference! This movie is made for me!
(Image via
strong to ignore. 

Separately, but related, the corporations that own franchises like Star Trek are trying to please shareholders by investing in low risk projects. Of course, the best chance at good returns is to go back to the same group of loyal fans. Pandering to profit without alienating an aging fan base leaves little room for innovation. 

Ironically, it’s often the risk taking projects — narratives that challenge audiences or speak to larger truths — that built the fan base in the first place.

While all commercial artistic endeavours (books, films, television) are on some level created in the hopes that there will be remuneration for the work, franchises are so valuable that the primary goal is to maintain the franchise. 

This type of franchise maintenance has several hallmarks: lack of creative ambition, meaningless callbacks to previous iterations, aversion to innovation, and emotionally hollow feel-good resolutions to conflict.

A perfect example of these hallmarks can be found in the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies that saw a younger, hipper cast take on the mantle of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Remember when James T. Kirk dies
in Star Trek: Into Darkness? No?
Emotionally hollow deux et machina
saves him in one of the biggest cop-outs
in the long history of Star Trek.
(Image via

The movies have been commercial successes, with the 2009 installment of the series raking in almost $400 million in box office receipts, and the 2013 follow up Into Darkness exceeding that tally. 

But viewers are offered weak tea philosophy and recycled plots. Fans are engaged primarily through call-back mechanisms that would mean nothing if the narrative were bereft of its franchise.

Shoehorning Leonard Nimoy’s Spock into the J.J. Abrams movies adds almost nothing to the plot. It’s a cheap and empty way to appeal to fans who have sunk time and effort into decades of the franchise. 

In Into Darkness, when the primary antagonist John Harriman says that his real name is Khan Noonien Singh, it’s presented as a major revelation — but in fact it means little within the narrative. The only reason an audience member would react to this is that they’re steeped in the lore of the franchise. 

Sadly, these stories can become victims of their own success as readers and viewers imagine what happens next, what happened before, and who else lives in that science fictional universe. 

What was once a narrative becomes a canon. 

What was once a story becomes a franchise. And franchises are dependent on fans continuing emotional attachment, but sadly not dependent on telling engaging stories.

It's difficult to let go of a beloved franchise. But maybe it's time to let it lie fallow for a while. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry I missed this post when it came out. I am more than happy to discard the dreck that Trek has become. Why, I'll even draw the line at 1979 and argue that what came after, while it may have moments of entertainment (even brilliance) is not good Trek and arguably not Trek at all.

    I tried the first episode of Discovery and was revulsed. Maybe it gets better.